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Destination: Explore Alaska

| Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 5:05 p.m.
Boats rest in the harbor of Valdez in Prince William Sound. It has been 23 years since the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez made international headlines. Bill Zlatos
A waterfall tumbles down a lush hillside in Alaska. Bill Zlatos
This is a water fight, Alaskan-style. Passengers on the Stan Stephens attempt to douse participants from the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez who went on a cruise. Bill Zlatos
Kayakers glide by an iceberg from the Columbia Glacier in Heather Bay. An eight-mile field of ice floats in front of the glacier. Bill Zlatos
Steller sea lions sun themselves on a buoy as the Mayflower Star transports kayakers to Heather Bay and the Columbia Glacier. The male sea lions can be nine feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds, twice as heavy as the females. Bill Zlatos
A group of crampon-clad hikers duck-walk up the Worthington Glacier. The climbers have to be careful not to slip and plunge into the crevasse on the left. Bill Zlatos
A sign welcomes visitors to Chugach National Forest, 5.4 million acres of land and water in southern Alaska. The drive from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula on the Seward Highway is one of the most magnificent in the country. Bill Zlatos

Alaska is big, really big. It could swallow states almost 13 times the size of Pennsylvania and not even burp.

More important, it's gorgeous. Its mountains are breathtaking, and there's an abundance of wildlife. I saw various critters, except for bears, and if I were there when the salmon were spawning, I would have seen plenty of them, too.

Any exploration of the state most likely will start with Anchorage, and that's not a bad place to start. Aside from being the most-populous city, it's a great hub for adventure. The drive on the Seward Highway from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula was one of the most spectacular of my life, with snow-capped peaks and Turnagain Arm.

Anchorage also features the state's premier arts attraction, the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.

Head to Valdez in June, and you can take in the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, where playwrights from around the country showcase their work. (Details: Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Prince William Community College, Valdez, 907-834-1614)

The oil spill from the Exxon Valdez has long been cleaned up.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

Frigid and ferocious white water

Rampaging 156 miles south of Anchorage in the Kenai Peninsula, Six Mile Creek beckons daredevils with frigid, ferocious white water.

Rafting the creek requires first taking a swim test in a small rapid in a dry suit. That's right — dry suits, not wet suits — all the better to avoid hypothermia.

Six Mile Creek offers a series of three progressively intense canyons. The last features six Class 5 rapids, the most-dangerous run-able rapids, with names like Suckhole, Zig-Zag and George Foreman. If you're not careful, the last one will clobber you.

Born of snow melt, the creek squeezes through a narrow, slate gorge that towers 500 feet tall in parts. A bald eagle hovered overhead, watching for a salmon meal, or, perhaps, seeking amusement at the rafters.

The creek was named by gold miner Percy Hope, because it was 6 miles from the town of Hope. Panners or dredgers still seek flakes or nuggets of gold along the river.

At a rapid called the Anvil, we missed the rocky Velcro Wall where rafts can flip or get stuck as if they're attached to Velcro. But, no problem. We successfully avoided any unplanned dunk in the water. That made it one of the best raft trips of my life.

Details: Nova, for rafting Six Mile Creek, Kenai Peninsula near Hope Road and Seward Highway intersection, 800-746-5753

A hike at the glacier

My daughter Laura and I decided to go hiking in Alaska, but not just a simple walk in the woods. We took a half-day trip up the Worthington Glacier.

After an hour's ride on a shuttle, we reached the toe of the glacier, and our guide, Zak, showed us how to attach crampons to our shoes. The teeth of the crampons dug into the ice, steadying our footing like mountain goats.

Zak demonstrated how to duck-walk with our toes pointed up the glacier as we steadied ourselves on ski poles. Good footing is essential, because there's not a blade of grass — let alone a bush or a tree — on the glacier. If you fall, you still would be rolling.

The glacier was a mass of white and eerily beautiful aquamarine with greywacke rock. In places, the guide grasped us in an arm lock as we peered down crevasses.

On the way down, gravity smashed my toes into my brand new boots. It turned my big toenail purplish black.

Details: Pangaea Adventures, for glacier hikes, sea kayaking, ice climbing, backpacking and rafting, 107 N. Harbor Drive, Valdez, Alaska, 1-800-660-9637

Get with the floe

Sea kayaking at the mouth of the Columbia Glacier is about as tranquil as yoga, provided you don't smack into a truck-size floe.

The glacier moves imperceptibly from Mt. Einstein, Mt. Columbia and Mt. Defiance in the Chugach Range, the second-tallest coastal range in the world and the second-largest tidewater glacier in North America.

Laura and I rode a former school bus, an aluminum landing craft called the Mayflower Star, for an hour-and-a-half from Valdez to reach the glacier.

Two juvenile bald eagles perched on rocks at the entrance of the harbor. Along the way, sea otters sunned themselves on their backs. Five steller sea lions basked on a buoy, and harbor seals roamed Heather Bay where we were dropped off.

We paddled and pedaled our tandem kayak through a maze of ice. Our guide, Hannah, said the ice ranged from brash ice no bigger than a person to bergy bits the size of a modest home. None could be classified as icebergs, the size of a large house.

Like the glacier, the ice was either aquamarine or white. The bluer the ice, the more dense it is with the bulk submerged.

The air was still as we glided through an otherworldly museum of modern art displaying natural ice sculptures of all shapes and sizes. But we dared not venture too close. A piece of ice could break off and fall on us, or the floe could tumble and capsize the boat.

During a break, two kayakers shed some rain gear and waded into the frigid water. Better them than me.

History and art under one roof

The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center is no igloo.

Located downtown, the modernistic building houses 25,000 artifacts, 2,000 photographs and a half-million photographs. The galleries showcase paintings of the state's spectacular scenery, its history and the handicraft of its indigenous people.

This landmark contains art galleries, a planetarium, the Imaginarium Discovery Center and the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. Visitors can study history, science and art under one roof.

Future exhibits will highlight antique toys and marine trash while past exhibits featured mammoths and mastodons and the work of Andy Warhol. Sound familiar?

Details: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C. St., Anchorage, 907-929-9200

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